As two biologists who both studied evolutionary biology, the Galapagos Islands are an iconic destination and one that we had every intention of doing thoroughly! Indeed, when we were in the early planning stages for our South American adventure, even before we had thought about what sort of vehicle we would get, we had a line in our budget for our visit to the islands. On the 6th March 2016, after about 40,000km of driving round South America, we finally touched down. Our time there was spent mostly on two boat tours – a diving trip to the excellent diving locations around the remote northern islands of Wolf and Darwin, followed by a more traditional naturalist cruise round the western islands.
Geologically speaking, the Galapagos Islands are young and will be short-lived. They are formed by volcanic action and, as the earth’s constantly moving crust carries them away from where they were formed, they are relatively quickly eroded. This means that the islands in the west are much younger than the more heavily eroded islands to the east.
The islands are of interest to biologists because of the interesting pattern of colonisation by animals and plants. They sit at a meeting point of Pacific ocean currents and, as they have never been attached to or even close to other land masses, the only life on the islands is that which has arrived by chance, presumably carried by these currents or by the wind. Once some chance colonisers (the giant tortoises, for example) arrived on one island, further colonisations allowed them to spread to the other islands, but each island population then lived in isolation of the others and they evolved separately. A veritable laboratory of speciation and evolution.
It was his visit to the Galapagos, at the end of his long voyage on the Beagle, which seeded the ideas that became the theory of evolution in Charles Darwin’s mind. However, this didn’t happen straightaway. In fact, tired and ill at the end of his long journey, Darwin didn’t recognise the significance of the different islands and didn’t label his collection of finches properly, mixing up samples from the different islands. It was back in London that a bird expert helped him sort them out and then the significance registered of the passing comment made to him by a resident of the islands that, if he was landed blindfold on any of the islands, he could tell which one he was on by the shape of the shell of the tortoise on that island. The rest, as they say, is history…
Given how important our visit to the islands was going to be for us, arguably, we left it a little late to start planning. As we travelled up the coast of Peru in February, the notion formed that we could wait out the rainy season in the mountains before returning to the Peruvian Andes by visiting the Galapagos and the Amazon. The trip to the Amazon in early April fell into place first (more about this in a forthcoming blog post), which left us with a Galapagos visit sized window in March, which, we had also heard, was also a good time of year to visit the islands.
Thanks to the richness of the ocean currents and the resulting sea life, the Islands are one of the global destinations for scuba diving and we wanted to do some diving while we were there. “Liveaboard” dive boats (diving cruise trips) book up 9 months to a year in advance, but March is outside of popular holiday periods, so we looked at a last minute diving holiday website and were fortunate to have a choice of two or three one week liveaboard trips in March. With the diving booked, we booked our flights from Guayaquil on the southern coast of the Ecuadorian mainland, giving ourselves a further week or so on the islands after the driving trip to see the islands proper.
Guayaquil is Ecuador’s second city, but it’s biggest commercial centre. It’s a day’s drive north across the border from where we finished our journey up the coast of Peru, mostly through many, many banana and cocoa plantations. We left the van parked in the car park of the hotel we stayed in before going to the airport to catch our flights to the Galapagos.
We landed in Baltra airport in the morning of 6th March and had an afternoon in the main town, Puerto Ayora, to walk around the many tour agencies there to see if we could find a last minute deal for a nature cruise for our second week on the islands (more about this below), before we were due to meet up with our dive boat the next day.
Cruise 1: The Humboldt Explorer – seeing the Galapagos’ underwater life
Early the next morning we caught the speedboat to the island of San Cristobal where we joined our dive boat, The Humboldt Explorer. There were 15 divers on the boat and we had, fortuitously, timed our trip to be one that coincided with the Hammerhead shark season. After a short visit to Seymour North Island to see some island life, we quickly made our way north to the remote islands of Darwin and Wolf, where the currents are strong and the sea-life spectacular. This was where we did most of our diving that week, often diving the same location repeatedly in one day, it was that good!
One lunchtime we found a group of Silky sharks hanging in the current underneath the boat – something they like to do apparently. So that afternoon’s diving involved being dropped off by a tender 100m or so in front of the boat, dropping down a few metres as the current swept us under the boat, trying to grab a weighted rope hanging off the back of the boat (not everyone managed this, given the strength of current), clinging on to it for as long as possible and hanging out with the sharks. The current made us feel like we were travelling at 60 miles an hour, when we were actually hanging behind a stationary anchored boat, while the sharks made hanging around in the current look so easy – it was a short but breathtaking dive!
Here are some more images of life on board and below the Humboldt Explorer (the underwater images above and in the gallery below are screen grabs taken from the trip video produced by our guides diving with Go Pro cameras):
Between cruises: A few days on land
After our last dive, we all went on an afternoon trip to one of the haciendas on the main island of Santa Cruz to see some of the giant tortoises that the Galapagos are famous for. Then, after a final dinner with the rest of our companions in Puerto Ayora, we left the boat and stayed in town.
Our plan for the next week had been to see if we could find a last minute deal on a naturalist cruise to visit some of the islands, or, if that wasn’t possible, we would do a little island hopping and day trips. Our dream was to find a cruise around the western islands, as it is on the far side of Isla Isabella that you find the Flightless Cormorants (Bruce had done his PhD. on cormorants, so was keen to see these funny birds) and the Galapagos Penguins (our last species of South American penguin). Here, where the Humboldt current meets the Galapagos, the water is cooler, which is why penguins can be found so close to the equator.
That first afternoon, after going back and forth to some agents, we had been pleasantly surprised to be offered a choice of two cruises going around the western islands that week: a “tourist class” small motor yacht with 10 passengers, with a small discount for last minute booking, or a half price deal on the last available cabin on one of the few large luxury cruise boats. Normally, the small trip would be much more our thing, but we knew we would already have spent a tiring week on a small boat (with an expected constant need for sea sickness medication), so this time, we snapped up the offer of the cheap deal on the luxury cruise and paid a deposit.
The challenge we left ourselves was that these little agents do not take credit cards, so we were going to have to find a way to pay the balance of thousands of dollars in cash when we got back to town after our diving trip. Had we known, we would have brought a good supply of dollars cash with us (Ecuador uses the US dollar), but we hadn’t and unfortunately, you can no longer just walk into a bank with a credit card an effectively “buy” money – these days they tell you to make an ATM withdrawal, with the associated relatively low daily limit. So, before paying the deposit, we did some calculations to check that, if we used every bank and credit card we had with us to the maximum each day on the few days between the two trips, we could just cover it – and it was worth the risk to try!
So, on our return to Puerto Ayora, we had a stressful few days making daily visits to the one cash machine on the edge of town that had a higher daily withdrawal limit than all the others, keeping our fingers crossed that we didn’t have a problem with any of the cards on any of the critical days. In the end, thanks to the suggestion of one of our fellow divers, we made up the last bit of remaining balance by sending money to ourselves via Western Union and getting it over the counter in the big hardware shop in town that is also a Western Union agent. It was with quite some relief that we went to the agent’s office the afternoon before the trip was due to depart and handed over our cash!
Cruise 2: The Santa Cruz II – life on land
The next morning, we took a bus and ferry back to the airport on Baltra to meet up with the Santa Cruz II as they met passengers at the airport. It wasn’t until we were actually on board, a few hours later, that we could confirm that our names were actually on the passenger list and we could be quite certain that our rather loose cash arrangement with the agent in town was real! Once in our assigned cabin (the last cabin on board), we breathed a huge sigh of relief and relaxed into luxury holiday cruise mode.
Our 6 days on board were filled with short walks on land on different spots on the islands, interspersed with some snorkeling and kayaking. We started with a return visit to North Seymour Island (giving us a chance to see how the mating season had progressed since our visit 10 days before) and, later on, had a second chance to see some giant tortoises at another hacienda on Santa Cruz Island. We were on board with a large group on an alumni trip from Colorado College, which made for some interesting dinner table conversation and we were treated to a couple of lectures from a member of the college staff.
Highlights of the cruise included: the Blue Footed Boobies dancing (to show off their blue feet); male frigatebirds in full, bright red display; finding ourselves next to a couple of swimming Marine Iguanas when snorkeling, then having a sealion come over to check us out; seeing the Flightless Cormorants spread their rather pathetic wings; having some sealion cubs come over and sniff us to see if we might be mum returning with food; sharing a patch of shade on the beach with a salt sneezing Marine Iguana; and seeing some turtles hatch on the beach after a short rain storm and cheering them on as they made their dash for the sea.
Here is a wildlife filled gallery with pictures from both the cruises: